THE KING AND I
The following by Rabbi Avi Shafran was sent to my email box by Am Echad Resources. The point made, the dignity of man regardless of whether he is a wealthy member of our community, or an African American homeless man living on the streets, is one that needs hearing.
Anyone who frequents the streets of lower Manhattan has seen him. He’s not the sort of fellow who easily escapes eyes.
Like many who spend their days wandering big-city downtowns, he seems to carry all his possessions in the upright shopping cart he pushes along. It is a colorful and eclectic collection. Peeking out from within the wire grid are assorted pieces of clothing, cardboard boxes, plastic bottles, empty cans, newspapers, the flag of some unknown country, and other assorted detritus of a life lived on the street.
Unlike many other unemployed homeless, though, he never panhandles or even seeks eye-contact with passers-by. He just pushes along proudly, a look of satisfaction on his face — and a large, green, foam-rubber Statue of Liberty crown atop his head.
It’s the crown that really makes him stand out, and which, along with his piled-high pushcart and resolute gait, makes the security dogs at the Staten Island Ferry terminal go berserk with barking at the sight of him. To be sure, one sees the occasional tourist with a similar headdress; the hats are popular souvenirs from nearby Liberty Island. But tourists wear them as kitsch, for photographs; to King Liberty, as I call the proud cart-pusher of Wall Street, it is clearly a diadem, a mark of royalty.
It is easy to dismiss the king as someone suffering from a mental illness, although “suffering” may be too strong a word, considering how content he seems. But what occurred to me when I recently saw him is that he is, at least from what one can know from observing him, not all that different from the rest of us, only perhaps a bit more transparent. After all, he’s busy collecting stuff and exulting in the status he imagines can be gleaned from flimsy things.
Our own stuff might seem more practical than King Liberty’s, but that’s just a function of our personal perspectives. His possessions are every bit as valued by their owner as ours are by us. And our own crowns — be they fancy watches, designer clothes, BMWs, the latest model cell-phone, or corner offices with nice views — are really no more meaningful in the end than gaudy foam-rubber garlands.
And the rest of us collect our stuff and our status, just as King Liberty does his, in an effort to achieve respect, mistaking the counterfeit for the real thing.
But it’s not. True honor comes from accomplishment, not acquisitions. It’s not what we have or wear or drive that counts, but what we are.
And the rabbis of the Mishneh point to a particular aspect of life that is a key to respect. “Who is honored?” they ask in Avot, 4:1, “He who honors [G-d’s] creatures.”
At first glance, one might interpret that statement as a simple good strategy: honor others and they will return the favor. But that’s hardly always true, and it is particularly untrue in our crass times, when cynicism and insults, aimed even at people who deserve the respect they themselves show others, are the coins of all too many realms.
The Hebrew words for “Who is honored?”, however, might better be rendered “Who is honorable?” — who, in other words, is inherently, meaningfully worthy of honor, honored, if not by his fellows, by his Creator.
And more food for thought lies in the Mishneh’s answer, “He who honors [G-d’s] creatures.” A proof-verse is offered, and it is laden with meaning: “As the verse says, ‘For those who honor Me I will honor…'” [Samuel I 2:30].
On a simple level, the verse is invoked to show that since G-d Himself honors those who honor Him, surely we mortals should act similarly. But something else clearly lies in the verse’s words — namely, that honoring others is itself an honoring of G-d. For man, after all, is created in the Divine image, and every human being — the word “creatures” is used pointedly — carries a spark of holiness within. Thus the famed Talmudic leader Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, we are taught, would swiftly greet every person he met each day “even a Gentile on the street.”
And so, the next time I spy King Liberty, who got me thinking about things in the first place, I will try to focus less on his hat than on what lies below it, and remember that he, no less than any of us, is worthy of honor. Because, royalty or not, he is the handiwork of the King of kings.
© 2007 AM ECHAD RESOURCES
[Rabbi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.]
A philosophical side-note: Should one show respect for others because they are in the Image of G-d, and therefore one is respecting G-d? Or are Avodah (worshipping Hashem) and Gemillus Chassadim (supporting others through acts of lovingkindness) independent primary values?
I would think that because Shim’on haTzadiq considers Torah, Avodah and Gemillus Chassadim to be distinct pillars upon which the world stands, that one needs to perform chessed because it’s chessed. In the ideal, one needs to develop a relationship with other people for its own value, not only because it is part of having a relationship with Hashem or perfecting oneself through Torah. Although one should have all three, and they should intertwine.
I touch on this question in my post on the lishmah of interpersonal mitzvos.